Mid-life crisis hardly describes the maelstrom that engulfs history teacher Henry Porter in his 39th summer, traced by Bausch (Almighty Me, 1991, etc.) in his finest and most complete novel yet..
Henry's summer should be as aimless as ever—days at the horse track (a passion that putatively cost him wife and daughter), evenings with girlfriend Elizabeth, the occasional existential curveball that his own cigar-chomping personal Fates might hurl his way. But his Fates—one of Henry's strategies to deny that life might have meaning, and that he might have responsibility for it—have more spitballs, sliders, and change-ups than Henry can imagine. Just as the season begins, daughter Nicole shows up unannounced. Five years ago, when he last saw her, she was an obese adolescent; now she's a svelte, vegetarian, high-school graduate. Clumsily, Henry welcomes her—then deserts her for the racetrack. Gambling success equals failure at paternal love, as he cashes in on the daily double. Although he feels guilty about the botched reunion and Nicole's reaction to it, what he should've done always comes to him too late, his mulish feelings lagging significantly behind his actions. A few nights later, the Fates throw a change-up: his girlfriend Elizabeth is two months pregnant. A teacher also, and as ambivalent to commitment as Henry is, Elizabeth knows only that she wants the baby. Little disasters whirl into larger chaos when, after agreeing to marriage, Elizabeth rejects Henry utterly. Henry becomes a “stalker”; an offhanded lie told to protect Nicole gets her assaulted instead by a cute but psychotic white supremacist; and in almost wooing Elizabeth back, he nearly kills her. In the end, Henry must confront the roots of the pain he causes those he loves—and maybe even figure out the meaning of his life.
A few narrative excesses aside: trenchant, funny, occasionally profound, and always surprising.